By Andy Duffy
I know precisely when I became a hunter who uses dogs. I was just a kid, eight or 10, maybe. We had a neighbor who owned a brace of beagles. He invited my brothers and me along one summer evening while he took them out for a run.
He ran the dogs on my parents’ property — 27 acres of creek bottom, tag alders and young aspen trees. A cynic might suspect that he invited us along just so he could run his hounds on my parents’ property, but that wasn’t it. I don’t know that Bob ever asked my parents if he could run his dogs on their property, but those were halcyon days when neighbors were pretty much free to roam at will. Our property had good rabbit habitat; Bob’s property had been farmed not so long ago and was as barren as a freshly-cut hayfield. He knew he was welcome to run his dogs at our place.
So, I stood enchanted on the side of a little hill and watched as his dogs bawled below me on the trail of a rabbit. I liked the enthusiasm of the beagles, their friendliness and their dedication to duty. I knew that I wanted to have hunting dogs someday. I was certainly not alone. Anthropologists can’t tell us when people first forged a partnership with dogs (although it may have been the other way around). I’m guessing that terrier-type dogs were the first to join that symbiotic relationship with people and that retrieving dogs and pointing dogs followed. That’s conjecture, of course. Still, our history with our canines is long, maybe 20,000 years long if the anthropologists are right.
And not only is our history with dogs long, it is celebrated. Homer wrote of Argos, the faithful hound that staved off death for 20 years while waiting for the return of his master Odysseus.
Shakespeare wrote of hounds “slow in pursuit but matched in mouth like bells. … A cry more tunable was never holloed to nor cheered nor cheered with horn. …”
Milton wrote of often “listening how the hounds and horn heerily rouse the slumbering morn.”
Then we have the Jim Kjelgaard books and Fred Gipson’s “Old Yeller” and “Savage Sam” and Wilson Rawls’ “Where the Red Fern Grows” and MacKinlay Kantor’s “The Voice of Bugle Ann.” A person who grew up without reading books about hunting dogs missed out on a vital part of childhood.
We don’t need dogs for our hunting, of course. Some people love stalking and spotting rabbits. In the northern states, deer hunters use dogs only to help them recover their game. Grouse hunters who don’t use dogs shoot a lot of birds. We can bait bear. We can row a boat out to retrieve our ducks. My question, though, is always this: Why wouldn’t a person use a dog? Teams of kids could play football without a goal line, too, but that would take away a lot of the fun. Dogs are the best hunting buddies a person could ever ask for. They’re never too tired to go. They don’t have another obligation. They willingly get up early and hop in the truck. They never stay home from a hunt to watch Michigan play Ohio State. They don’t take shots that are rightfully yours. And, they do the grunt work without complaining. Just ask your buddy to swim out and retrieve your duck and see how that goes. But a Labrador retriever or a Boykin spaniel will be happy to do it.
Beagles go through the nastiest briar tangles imaginable to keep a rabbit running.
Retrievers and pointers never complain about switchgrass at the field edges cutting them up.
When a raccoon bites a hound, the hound just keeps going back for more.
Treat a dog properly and a dog is entirely non-judgmental. With an appreciative wag of the tail, they accept the medical attention that comes at the hunt’s end. They never blame their owners for taking them where porcupines waddle or briars prick or anything else, either.
Dogs have intelligence that rivals most people’s.
Oh, they can’t do algebra or anything like that. They understand psychology, though. They know how to get attention just by looking imploringly at a person. That’s a lot more effective than the temper tantrums we see kids throwing in grocery stores. Dogs have an intuition that is simply amazing. Lying on my living room floor right now is a big, old golden retriever. Under my computer desk is an old, blue cat. The elderly lady who gave us the cat before going downstate to live near her daughter had the feline declawed when it was just a kitten. Deprived of its claws, the cat knew it was defenseless against dogs. She was terrified when she moved in with us. The golden retriever seemed to sense the cat’s fear. She was careful never to make a sudden move around the cat. She would just raise her ponderous head and watch when the cat slunk by her. I’m convinced she was doing everything she could to assuage the cat’s trepidation.
Dogs have more sensibilities than we might think. I know they ponder the meaning of life. My beagle has convinced me of that.
Each year when the dog-training season ends midway through April and I can no longer let her run rabbits, I watch her mope. Her actions and her expressions show clearly that she is wondering about her existence. Is that all there is to life, she wonders, to be confined to a pen? She knows God made dogs for better things than rotting in a cell. And each year when I can finally cut her loose and take her out for a run, her excited wanderings would make ardent opponents of gerrymandering go crazy, but they do me a world of good. They do her a world of good, too. You can see it in her demeanor. She’s happy again. Her life has a purpose again.
Let me back up a bit. I wrote that dogs can’t do algebra, and maybe they can’t. They certainly know a thing or two about geometry, though. They know, for example, that if a pheasant is running down a drainage ditch, they can make a fast arc to block the bird for the hunter. Dogs can extrapolate the path of a tossed treat and catch it with their mouth. They quickly figure out the path of a tossed Frisbee disc. If I could have figured out the routes of moving objects as well as a dog can, I might have made my high-school baseball team.
And dogs love with all their heart, too.
I have an English springer that follows me from one end of the house to the other just to lie at my feet. When I leave my office to grab another drink from the refrigerator, she tags along. When I go to the bathroom, she waits outside the door. She knows my behavior so well that she anticipates my every move. I arise in the morning and go outside to put my bike rack on the car, and she follows. She tags along as I grab my bike from its perch and load it on the rack. She follows when I go back inside to grab my water bottle. Then she follows no longer. She knows I leave without her at that point, and I never need to tell her to remain behind. The disconsolate look she wears on her face, though, brings pain to my heart and is almost enough to make me skip my bike ride. If anything has a character more pure than a dog’s or love more devout, I don’t know what it is.
So far, I’ve hardly scratched the surface of what dogs do for us on a hunt. In a nutshell, they trail, they flush, they point, they tree and they retrieve. That’s a gross simplification, though.
First, of course, they discover things with their noses. They are exceptionally adept at smelling things. Their noses possess up to 300 million olfactory receptors. Compare that with the measly six million or so that humans possess. Dogs even have a special pathway in their noses designed for smelling instead of breathing. It’s no wonder they’re always sniffing things. They learn things by sniffing, and we should let them learn.
A hunting dog’s duties don’t end with smelling things, though. Hounds need to follow a trail. Springers need to goad a bird into flight. Pointers need to freeze when they smell a grouse, and they need to stay frozen until their gun-carrying partner arrives. Retrievers often need to do all the above and then retrieve, too. But breeds have overlapping responsibilities. I have a rabbit-hunting friend who had a couple of beagles that would retrieve his rabbits for him. Some retrievers point.
Dogs help us recover game, too.
A couple of years ago, my springer flushed a grouse in front of my son-in-law. We saw the bird fall at the shot and figured it was dead. My springer, of course, went right to the area but, instead of finding the bird and bringing it to us, she kept wandering off. We kept calling her back to the area where the bird dropped and telling her to hunt dead. Then she started ignoring our commands and wandered off. We couldn’t call her back. We noticed she was making a rough line, though. We started suspecting that the bird wasn’t dead. Then we could see the grouse’s head occasionally poking through the tops of the bracken ferns a hundred yards off. My springer caught it and brought it back. When we were so obviously wrong about the bird, my dog had sense enough to ignore our commands and do her job. The best hunting dogs have intelligence and an independent streak. Hunters need to learn to trust their dogs. Dogs know a lot more about hunting than we do. Sporting dogs learn to do a great variety of things. I had the opportunity to hunt ducks last fall with the editor of this magazine. His dog Calvin, a small Munsterlander, is amazing. I loved watching him work and seeing the bond the two forged with each other.
We ask a lot of our waterfowl dogs. Among other things, they need to retrieve fallen birds. They often mark and remember the location of several fallen birds. They need to interpret and follow hand signals to get to unseen falls. I know some college graduates who can’t do all those things.
And while I’m on the topic of dog intelligence, I should mention this: I was hunting rabbits with a friend of mine. We watched as our pack of beagles followed a trail to a big brush pile where the rabbit had taken refuge. The dogs poked around but found the brush pile impenetrable. Then one of my friend’s dogs bolted out of the area. She ran back up the trail the dogs had just come down and jumped a rabbit. The other dogs quickly joined in the chase. Aghast, my friend and I just looked at each other in disbelief. His dog, Maggie, obviously knew she had just gone by that sitting cottontail while the pack was on the other one’s trail. When they could no longer run that rabbit, she went back to run the other rabbit. If we hunt with dogs long enough, we’ll see things that boggle our minds. A lot of people should never own a dog. Dogs are too precious to be entrusted to a lout. They shouldn’t be left in a kennel for months on end, either. Ideally, they should be a part of the family. They should be allowed to lie at our feet, sleep at our feet and lick our hands and faces. They should visit a reliable boarder or stay with a trusted friend when we can’t take them with us on vacation.
Some hunters might judge the quality of a hunting buddy by the caliber of eulogy he figures the buddy can deliver at the hunter’s funeral. Dogs can’t offer eulogies in the traditional manner (and we wouldn’t deserve the eulogies they would offer anyway). They show us their devotion every day of their lives, though, and we know they’ll continue to miss us once we’re gone. They’re the best friends a person can ever hope to have. That’s reason enough to hunt with them.